Despite first-round exit, Panthers poised to come back stronger next season

Image courtesy of @turbuL3NT2 / COTP Photography

After 88 games played over 6 long months, the Panthers’ franchise record-breaking season finally came to an end on Sunday night. The Islanders defeated the group of talented young guns and wise, grizzled veterans 4-2 in a best-of-7 series with a 2-1 double overtime victory and it didn’t take long for players and fans to realize what had happened. However, despite leaving some business unfinished, the Panthers are anxious for next season and poised to surprise the league once again.

The mood surrounding the Panthers’ locker room on Tuesday morning not only disappointment because of what should’ve and could’ve been, but also hopeful and anxious to get back at it again in October. None of the players or staff were willing to put the blame on the officials for costing them what would’ve been a Game 7 in Sunrise on Tuesday night and hardly put it on themselves after acknowledging that they played well enough to win the series.

“It’s playoff hockey, the refs usually put their whistles away whenever it goes to overtime,” said Vincent Trocheck who was tripped in back-to-back games at pivotal points. “We’re not blaming anything on that.”

However, most of us would agree that the two missed offensive zone tripping calls with the net empty – one on Vincent Trocheck and another on Reilly Smith just seconds later – in the final minute of Game 6 on Sunday are what ended the season for the Panthers.

“They had a bad skate sharpener,” joked head coach Gerard Gallant.

The missed calls allowed the Islanders to gain control of the puck, turn it back the other way, and score the game-tying goal which sent the game to overtime (and eventually a second overtime period) where the Panthers were eventually eliminated. The Panthers refused to dwell on the negatives, however, and instead reflected on not only their overall play throughout the season and series, but also the future of the organization.

“I truly believe we had everything needed to go make a deep run, go all the way,” said Jussi Jokinen. “You don’t get these chances too often so it’s been a really hard pill to swallow.”

“We wish that we could’ve capitalized on a few more opportunities, we wish that the bounces would’ve went our way but they didn’t and it’s nothing to complain about,” said Aaron Ekblad who was one of 10 Panthers to make NHL their post-season debuts during the series.

Although most of the players didn’t believe it to be much of a factor, it appeared to be from the outside looking in as they found themselves unable to hold several leads throughout the series despite being in control for the most of it. Many of the young players had playoff experience prior to the NHL, although a comparison between the two was one that could hardly be put into words.

“In the OHL, you experience it a little bit, a little bit of that intensity, but it’s nothing like the NHL,” said the 20-year old Ekblad after wrapping up his 2nd season in the NHL. “It’s nothing like that belief and that kind of motivation that every player and every team has, and you see every game whether you’re watching at night or playing in it. It’s something that you never want to step away from.”

Then there was the 20-year old Aleksander Barkov who also played in his very first NHL post-season games, and even though he was often matched up against one of the best players in the world in John Tavares, he performed admirably and proved once again that he’s poised to become one of the top centers in the league, if he isn’t to some already.

“It was a little bit different than the regular season,” said Barkov. “It was like a battle from the first game to the sixth game, 2nd overtime. It was a great experience and a great series. It’s hard to describe, it was like a lot different from the regular season.”

The Finland-native recorded a career-high 28 goals during the regular season despite missing several weeks in total with a concussion late in the year and broken hand in October, and he nearly ended Game 5 in overtime on a penalty shot which was stopped by Thomas Greiss. The night it happened, Barkov admitted he executed the move the way he wanted to, but chalked it up to a great glove save by Greiss.

“[Monday] I saw the picture when I just shot it, it was pretty close, maybe 2 inches over his pad and it should’ve gone in,” said the young center on Tuesday.

That missed opportunity was hardly the focus of any of the other players on the team as even a guy like Derek MacKenzie didn’t understand what the Panthers were missing in the series.

“We did a lot, if not all, of the things we wanted to do in that series,” said the Panthers’ veteran 4th-line center. “You left the rink night in and night out saying ‘it’s gonna come around, it’s gonna come around’ and it never did. It’s one thing when you kind of have the answers and another thing when you’re searching for them.”

On the same night during double overtime of game 5, the Panthers lost Nick Bjugstad after he took a scary fall face-first into the offensive zone boards after a combination of his skate getting caught in a rut and a stick tap to his legs by Shane Prince. He left the game with blood streaming from above his left eye after laying on the ice for several minutes.

The 23-year old Minnesota-native was enjoying a solid post-season during which he was near the top of the league in shots while boasting 2 goals and 2 assists in 4 games. The Panthers had just gotten center Vincent Trocheck back from a fractured fibula – an injury which he said he wasn’t fully recovered from but was “good enough to go” – that night so it was tough to swallow at that point in the game.

“Right now, I’m totally fine,” said Bjugstad as he met with the media for the first time since the collision with the boards. “It was looking like I was probably gonna play [Tuesday night] if we had a Game 7, so I’m symptom-free thankfully.”

“I was with it, I didn’t get knocked out or anything. They were doing the protocol, probably laid there a little longer than I had to.”

The saying goes that “all’s well that ends well,” however despite the Panthers’ first-round series not ending in a victory and a trip to the second round against the cross-state rival Tampa Bay Lightning, the future remains incredibly bright for the up-and-coming team.

“We’re already thinking about next season,” said Bjugstad.

The odds are that for the most part, the core of the Panthers roster as it is right now will remain intact come October, and as we’ve seen over the past couple of seasons, having a team of players that are familiar with each other can breed winning.

I’ll look at the brightside,” said General Manager Dale Tallon. “We’ve got a great future here for the next 10, 12, 15 years, we’ve got great assets coming in the system and we’ve got great support from ownership. We’re headed in the right direction.”

From A Losing Culture To A Winning Culture

The Panthers have long been known for their losing ways but with with the advent of a new ownership group at the start of the 2013-14 season, the culture of losing season in and season out has seemingly disappeared.

“The mindset has always been ‘we need to make the playoffs, we need to make the playoffs, gotta give ourselves a chance,’” said Aaron Ekblad. “It’s been an expectation to make the playoffs, it hasn’t been a request.”

The Panthers have made huge strides over the past several years as they went from the bottom of the league with just 66 points two seasons ago to a franchise-record 103 points during this past campaign. They missed out on making the playoffs last year by a hair after being essentially eliminated from contention by the Bruins in game 77, however they came back this season and defied the odds set by outsiders to win the Atlantic Division, set franchise records upon franchise records, and most importantly make the playoffs.

“Winning makes things happy,” said Brian Campbell. “I think the ownership is solid obviously now, and that makes a big difference. If you don’t have good ownership, that doesn’t allow you to win and I think they’re committed to what they want to do and that’s gonna give us a shot at winning.”

Players also expressed their love for their teammates and the positive atmosphere of the Panthers’ locker room. It’s been obvious that the team has had fun all season long, whether it be with the Kevin Spacey hoodie awarded to the team MVP after a win, blasting the song “Trap Queen” in the locker room, or just being around each other on the ice.

“There’s a bunch of flair with this team,” said Erik Gudbranson. “It just goes to show, something like [the Spacey hoodie], just how tight our group was this year. We’re just a good bunch of guys that really enjoy playing the game together this year. […] These are the greatest guys I’ve ever played with.”

Locking Up The Future

The Panthers have several players up for new contracts this season including Erik Gudbranson (RFA), Brian Campbell (UFA), Vincent Trocheck (RFA), and Jaromir Jagr (UFA), among others. Both Campbell and Jagr have the opportunity to test the free-agent waters come July 1st, although it seemed like they were both interested in staying.

“Hopefully, I don’t know yet,” said Brian Campbell when asked if he had plans to be a part of the Panthers next season. “[Dale Tallon and I] will talk for sure. I know [my wife and I] were looking at places just to see…for us it’s definitely on the radar, it’s just now that the season’s over, maybe I can take a week away from everything then talk to Dale and see what we wanna do and where we can go with it.”

Campbell is coming off a season in which he set a career-high with a plus/minus rating of +31 while also leading the team’s defensemen in assists with 25. The soon-to-be 37-year old struggled in the playoffs but was as reliable and consistent as ever during the regular season, which is impressive considering he hasn’t missed a single game since arriving in Florida 4 years ago.

Campbell was on an 8-year, $57 million deal which he was signed to back in 2008 with the Blackhawks, although if a deal gets done with Florida, it will likely be in the 1-3 year range and around $3 million to $4 million mark.

Jaromir Jagr on the other hand led the Panthers in scoring this season with 27 goals and 66 points in 79 games played…at the age of 44. He reached milestone after milestone and missed just 3 games all year long which is a testament to his dedication to the sport, something that earned him a Masterton Trophy nominee for the Panthers. Jagr has mentioned several times since arriving at the trade deadline last year that he’s impressed with the young players on the team, loves playing with them, and had no idea how good they were.

He didn’t tell the media that he was definitely interested in saying and instead left it at “we’ll see,” however Dale Tallon let it slip that he was, and it makes sense for both parties.

 “Well I just talked to him, he wants to come back,” said Tallon. “I’m sure we’ll come to an agreement of some sort. It’s a win-win for all of us. He’s been great; doing what he’s done on and off the ice with our young guys has been incredible.”

 “It was amazing,” said Vincent Trocheck when asked what it was like playing with him for a full year.

Trocheck is also up for a new contract with the season finally over, however the difference with him – and it’s the same for Gudbranson – is that he’s a RFA, meaning he’s under team control and won’t be readily available to other teams come July 1st. It’s pretty likely that he’ll get signed, especially after the breakout season he just had during which he recorded 25 goals and 28 assists, blowing past the numbers he had last year.

Gudbranson has a strong desire to return next year and is confident he will, especially after the solid, consistent season he had in his 5th year in the NHL.

“Obviously something is gonna happen, this is where I wanna be, no doubt,” said Gudbranson when asked about possibly signing a new contract with the Panthers. “I will be here, but that’s for the business side to be taken care of, and I’ll leave it up to [my agent and Tallon].”

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